Vincent Keaveny, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, arrived in the San Francisco Bay area to meet with potential investors this week, driven by one overarching goal: to turn his city into the global leader of financial technology.
The effort comes at a time when the U.K. capital is heading into its third year outside of the European Union, after having left the trading bloc in January 2020, and is just bouncing back from the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic which decimated small businesses in London’s central business district and cast a dour short-term outlook on its retail sector.
On Monday, Keaveny met with representatives of Salesforce.com Inc. CRM; the venture capital firm Sway Ventures; and Plaid, a San Francisco financial-services company. He’s scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Franklin Resources Inc.’s
Franklin Templeton, Piva Capital, and Plug and Play Tech Center before heading on to Mexico. The meetings are part of an effort to draw investment interest to London, to create more fintech and technology jobs, and to build the city’s stature in the world of finance and innovation up to a level rivaled by cities like Beijing, San Francisco and New York.
“We want to see London positioned as the international capital of fintech,” Keaveny said during an interview with MarketWatch on Monday in San Francisco. “The ecosystem in California — in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley area — is such a hub of innovation. We need to be connected into that to make our goals for London and the U.K. happen.”
“Technology is really what’s driving change these days,” he said. “If London stays ahead on the innovation, on the technology development, London will be absolutely fine.”
Less than three weeks ago, Keaveny wrote an online op-ed pointing out that the dual challenges of Brexit and the pandemic of the past year had some cynics doubting the U.K. capital’s future as a world leading business hub. London has lost roughly 7,400 jobs due to Brexit, far fewer than initially expected. Meanwhile, the city has since managed to create tens of thousands new jobs, Keaveny says — particularly in the technology and fintech sectors, which helped to power the U.K. economy to a 7.5% rate of growth last year.
Despite a wave of small business closures during the omicron wave of the pandemic, London is now rapidly recovering, he says. England began the process of dropping virtually all its anti-COVID restrictions in January, even while the rest of Europe was still engulfed by omicron. Its residents are no longer under mandatory face mask requirements, and the government is in the process of ending quarantine requirements for those who test positive for the coronavirus — putting the U.K. months ahead of the U.S. on a seemingly more normal way of life.
The U.S. is the U.K.’s largest trading and investment partner, while the U.K. itself is one of the largest foreign direct investors into the U.S. economy, pouring in almost half a trillion dollars of mostly private financial capital in 2020. Keaveny says his message to American businesses and investors is that “London and the U.K. are as open and as interested in the opportunities that U.S. investment presents as ever before.”
“London is bouncing back from the pandemic, surprisingly quickly. Bars and restaurants are packed and it feels quite normal,” he said. “We’re bouncing back from the pandemic, and it’s a great moment for American businesses and investors to look again at London and the U.K .”
The work ahead for Keaveny may not be entirely easy, though. U.S. investors of all stripes have, in recent days, been preoccupied with the potential of a Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the highest inflation rate in four decades, and the prospect of multiple interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve this year.
On top of all this is the potential difficulty of recreating all the ingredients that go into the success of a place like Silicon Valley — whether it’s face-to-face interactions or access to an abundance of talent and capital.
Some U.S. companies, like Zoom Video Communications
and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“have thrived in international markets,” said Ahmad Thomas, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, whose members provide almost one out of every three private-sector jobs in the Valley. However, “the export of the technology and innovative infrastructure we have here in Silicon Valley to other markets is quite difficult.”
“Unless he [the Lord Mayor] is able to establish a significant basis for return on investment, it may be very challenging to drive significant dynamic investment in the high hundreds of millions, given the set of challenging conditions on the ground and unsteady outlook” left by the pandemic and Brexit, Thomas said via phone.
This week’s trip by Keaveny is the first time that a Lord Mayor has visited the U.S. during the pandemic. In his role, Keaveny, a 56-year-old corporate lawyer born and raised in Ireland, acts as the international ambassador for the UK’s financial and professional services sector. He became the 693rd Lord Mayor of London in November and the first Irish person to hold that position.
With responsibilities distinct from the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who serves the sprawling Greater London area, Keaveny holds a one-year term and is head of the governing body that oversees the “Square Mile.” The “Square Mile,” where the city’s financial district sits, practically became a ghost town of empty buildings last year because of the pandemic.
“Over the next six to 12 months, I’m hoping to see a number of the venture capitalists we’re talking to, over in London, looking at business opportunities, committing capital towards significant investments in the U.K.,” Keaveny said. “Certainly, everything we’re hearing from that community in San Francisco” during meetings on Monday “is that they are really interested in looking at those opportunities.”